Will I ever need maths?

Will I ever need maths?
  • PublishedMarch 28, 2024

The Conversation is asking kids to send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. Hadassah G, age 9, wants to know if he will ever need maths besides for school or work. A professor of mathematics explains.

It can be easy to think that you need maths only to do your algebra or geometry homework or if you have a job as an engineer. But, in fact, maths pops up everywhere — even in the soap bubbles in your kitchen sink.

While washing dishes when I was 13, I noticed that the soap bubbles formed tiny 3D polygons, packed together like a honeycomb, but not all of these shapes were perfectly round.

Why did some of the bubbles look like hexagons? Why were others shaped like squares full of air? Why didn’t I see any star-shaped bubbles, or bubbles with spikes?

A tightly packed collection of hexagon-shaped, rainbow-coloured bubbles against a dark background.
Maths helps explain the shapes of bubbles and the reason they naturally pack together without any gaps.(Adobe Stock )

When I learned that maths could help answer these questions, I thought that was so cool!

Now, as a professor of mathematics who studies how people learn maths through play, I understand why bubbles are naturally lazy. I even studied the maths behind the reason I saw only some shapes in soapy dishwater.

Besides helping explain the behaviour of bubbles and other curiosities of nature, maths is likely part of many of your everyday activities, along with the technology you enjoy and even the inner workings of your brain.

Doing maths isn’t just about computing, memorising, solving an equation or doing word problems by yourself.

It’s really about creative problem-solving and logical thinking with other people.

Maths in everyday life

Many topics you learn in primary school — like fractions, percentages and measurements — are useful in everyday life.

For example, if you want to build a fence around your house, paint your walls with a new colour or design, or sew yourself a new outfit or quilt, all of those activities require knowledge about measurement and scaling.

More complicated construction projects, such as building a tree house, require lots of mathematical problem-solving skills.

Once you’ve laid out the plans for one of these projects, you need to buy all the materials.

Percentages — which are special kinds of fractions — are especially important to understand when managing money. Understanding percentages can help you budget your money and increase your net worth.

Beyond budgeting, you might find yourself using percentages when cooking a double batch of brownies, determining how much medicine to take when you’re sick or understanding the weather forecast.

Your favourite technology needs maths

Maths is an essential tool that animators use to make movies.

Studios like Pixar rely on ideas from geometry to bring characters like Ember from Elemental to life.

With an understanding of geometric transformations like reflections, rotations and translations, you can use your computer to make your own animations.

Coordinate systems, which are fundamental to geometry, show up in video games like Minecraft.

The 2D Minecraft world uses a 2D coordinate system — with an X-axis and a Y-axis — where you can move north, south, east or west. In the 3D Minecraft world, there’s also a Z-axis, allowing you to move up and down.

Secondary school teachers can even use Minecraft to help students learn maths concepts.

Many high-paying jobs use maths, especially probability — again, fractions.

Understanding probability helps doctors identify how effective medical treatments are, informs coaches about ways their teams can improve and aids cryptographers in keeping private information — like your email password or ATM PIN — secret.

Cryptography combines probability with number theory to create secret codes that are difficult to crack.

Maths helps your brain

Maths can have a big impact on your internal life, too.

You can use maths activities to train your brain the same way you would train your body for a sport.

Doing maths helps your brain become flexible so you can better handle new tasks and ideas of all kinds.

Even doing things that don’t look like your maths homework, such as crossword puzzles, word searches and board games like Set and Blokus are deeply mathematical activities that help your brain get stronger.

This kind of mental training helps the brain pay attention and solve problems and improves memory. A strong working memory supports brain functions that lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Having a stronger, more flexible brain also aids quantitative literacy, which can help you make sense of graphs that appear in the media, reflect critically about news and understand health and financial information.

Maths can even help you outsmart artificial intelligence. With the rise of AI, it’s important to be able to think creatively, reason logically and make connections between concepts — whether mathematical or not.

Puzzling through a difficult maths problem nurtures these skills, even if you don’t get the right answer right away.

It’s important to remember that doing maths doesn’t require you to be fast or to get the correct answer right away. In fact, you can learn a lot by getting the wrong answer.

Working with other people can also help you to make sure you really understand the problem and builds communication and teamwork skills.

Maths is so much more than memorising times tables and filling out homework problem sets.

So next time you kick back to watch your favourite animated movie, or start saving up for a fancy new tech gadget, hopefully you’ll appreciate how maths is woven into so many parts of life.

SOURCE: ABCNEWS

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